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The True Joy in Life

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This is the true joy in life: the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and that as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me: it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the next generation.

George Bernard Shaw


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For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first. Some unfinished business. Time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.

Fr Alfred d’Souza

Inaugural Speech : Nelson Mandela

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This quote, from Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love, was used by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech in 1994.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

David Hilbert

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This quote, from a biography of the great mathematician David Hilbert, was sometimes a comfort to me when I was struggling with a new concept in my mathematical research.

‘That I have been able to accomplish anything in mathematics’, Hilbert once said to Harald Bohr, ‘is really due to the fact that I have always found it so difficult. When I read or when I am told about something, it nearly always seems so difficult, and practically impossible to understand, and then I cannot help wondering if it might not be simpler. And’, he added, with his still childlike grin, ‘on several occasions it has turned out that it really was more simple! ’

Constance Reid, Hilbert, George Allen and Unwin, 1970

Anna Quindlen

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Some excerpts from Anna Quindlen’s Commencement Speech at Mount Holyoke College. (Anna Quindlen is the bestselling author of four novels. Her New York Times column won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.)

Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

This is more difficult, because there is no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, no mask to wear. Set aside what your friends expect, what your parents demand, what your acquaintances require. Set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its disdain and its disapproval, about how you should behave.

Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate. Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me. Because they are who and what I am, and mean to be.

This is the hard work of your life in the world, to make it all up as you go along, to acknowledge the introvert, the clown, the artist, the reserved, the distraught, the goofball, the thinker. You will have to bend all your will not to march to the music that all of those great “theys” out there pipe on their flutes. They want you to go to professional school, to wear khakis, to pierce your navel, to bare your soul. These are the fashionable ways. The music is tinny, if you listen close enough. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart. This is a symphony. All the rest are jingles.

If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.

Each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice. If she is doing Faulkner imitations, she can stay home. If she is giving readers what she thinks they want instead of what she is, she should stop typing.

But if her books reflect her character, who she really is, then she is giving them a new and wonderful gift. Giving it to herself, too.

And that is true of music and art and teaching and medicine.

Think back to first or second grade, when you could still hear the sound of your own voice in your head, when you were too young, too unformed, too fantastic to understand that you were supposed to take on the protective coloration of the expectations of those around you. Think of what the writer Catherine Drinker Bowen once wrote, more than half a century ago: “Many a man who has known himself at ten forgets himself utterly between ten and thirty.” Many a woman, too.

Remember yourself, from the days when you were younger and rougher and wilder, more scrawl than straight line. Remember all of yourself, the flaws and faults as well as the many strengths. Carl Jung once said, “If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance toward oneself can only have good results in respect for our neighbors, for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”

Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world.

Copyright © 2000 Mount Holyoke College

Lakatos on Isaac Newton’s Theories

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This appears as a footnote in Imre Lakatos’s wonderful book Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery. This book had a profound effect on my whole attitude towards mathematics when I read it as a PhD student.

Newton’s mechanics and theory of gravitation was put forward as a daring guess, which was ridiculed and called ‘occult’ by by Leibniz and suspected even by Newton himself. But a few decades later—in the absence of refutations—his axioms came to be taken as indubitably true. Suspicions were forgotten, critics branded ‘eccentric’ if not ‘obscurantist’; some of his most doubtful assumptions came to be regarded as so trivial that textbooks never even stated them. The debate—from Kant to Poincaré—was no longer about the truth of Newtonian theory but about the nature of its certainty.

…The ideology between political ideologies and scientific theories is then more far-reaching than is commonly realised: political ideologies which first may be debated (and perhaps only accepted under pressure) may turn into unquestioned background knowledge even in a single generation: the critics are forgotten (and perhaps executed) until a revolution vindicates their objections.

George Spencer Brown

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To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set abut it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are continually being thrust upon them.

Laws of Form, 1969

Albert Einstein

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A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

Martin Luther

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Medicine makes people ill, mathematics make them sad and theology makes them sinful.